A new low in politicians’ bids to stifle press
Like much about his campaign, Donald Trump’s threat to sue the New York Times over unflattering coverage would be amusing if its implications weren’t so serious.
It stems, of course, from the wish of all candidates and office holders to avoid headlines that might undermine their popularity and cost them elections.
But the fact that all politicians have trouble with the news media doesn’t mean that some examples aren’t worse than others.
One of the worst when it comes to preventing the political press from doing its job of reporting what public officials are up to is Hillary Clinton. See the months she goes between news conferences. See her resistance to full disclosure of many aspects of her private and public life, including controversial parts of her record as U.S. secretary of state. See how her instinct for secrecy turns her personality from charming to taciturn as soon as a journalist’s notebook opens. But Trump’s frequent outbursts and threats against the press and broadcast media take this to a different level.
The latest happened Saturday.
That day, the New York Times quoted public records to document how Trump’s businesses had benefited from $885 million in tax breaks, grants and other public subsidies over the years. Separately, Times columnist Maureen Dowd, in a CNN interview, said she questioned Trump about violence at his campaign rallies, and the Republican presidential nominee said the rough stuff added “excitement” to the events.
Trump responded with a series of missives on Twitter, ridiculing Dowd (“crazy,” “wacky,” “a neurotic dope”) and seeming to deny having the conversations she described. Trump’s posts on the social media site included this: “My lawyers want to sue the failing @NYTimes so badly for irresponsible intent. I said no (for now), but they are watching. Really disgusting.”
Legal experts mocked Trump’s phrase “irresponsible intent,” which sounds like a legal doctrine but isn’t. Perhaps Trump meant “reckless disregard” for the truth, which, along with malice, must be proven by a libel plaintiff under the precedent set by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1964 New York Times v. Sullivan ruling.
Political observers doubted Trump actually would sue the newspaper. More likely, the candidate is just trying to work the media referees and stoke many supporters’ antipathy toward the press.
Even if that’s the intent, Trump is going about it in a way unseen in previous history.
Along with his February proposal to “open up our libel laws” and make suing easier, and his campaign’s barring of certain media outlets from his events, this talk betrays a contempt for a free press that would be worrisome in a president. One need not take sides in the decades-old fight between conservatives and the “liberal media” to think that elected officials must not be protected from press and public criticism. In fact, Trump’s supporters, many of whom express wholesale distrust of the political class, should be as appalled as anyone by an attempt to stifle reporting and commentary about our leaders from media of any political stripe — or no political stripe whatsoever.
If Trump really took up this fight against the Times, it wouldn’t end with this candidate and that newspaper.
Let there be no doubt that Hillary Clinton would be right behind him in line at the courthouse door.